Banned Books Awareness: To Kill a Mockingbird


Harper Lee’s immortal classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, was first published in 1960 to instant acclaim- despite her editors’ warnings that it probably wouldn’t sell all that well.

In its first year of release it would garner rave reviews by The New Yorker and Time magazines, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. To date it has sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into over 40 languages. It has never been out of print and has become part of the standard literature curriculum in schools nationwide. A 2008 survey of books read by high school students designates the novel as the most widely read book in classes. In 2006, even British librarians placed the book atop The Bible as one that “every adult should read before they die.” In the years that followed, numerous film and stage adaptions would add to its literary legacy.

The timeless tale, long celebrated for its warmth and humor despite dealing with serious issues such as rape and racial inequality in the American South, would be the focus of controversy since first entering the classroom in 1963.

In 1968 the National Education Association placed the novel second on a list of titles receiving the most complaints from private organizations. The top spot belonged to Little Black Sambo.

Racial slurs, profanity, and blunt dialogue about rape have led people to challenge its appropriateness in libraries and classrooms so often that, today, the American Library Association reports that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most challenged classics of all time and still ranks at number 21 of the 100 most frequently challenged books of 2000–2009. Even as recently as 2011 and amid 326 other book challenges for that year, it ranks in the top ten more than 50 years after seeing print.

Perhaps the first major incident surrounding the book was in Hanover, Virginia, in 1966 when a parent protested that the use of rape as a plot device was immoral. Several examples of letters to local newspapers- which ranged from amusement to fury- expressed mostly outrage over the depictions of rape. Upon learning that school administrators were holding hearings regarding the book’s appropriateness for the classroom, Harper Lee sent $10 to The Richmond News Leader suggesting it to be used toward the enrollment of “the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”

With the shift of attitudes about race in the 1970’s, To Kill a Mockingbird faced challenges over concerns that the treatment of racism was not condemned harshly enough which led to contrasting perceptions between blacks and whites. While the novel had a generally positive impact on white readers, a more uncertain reception was given by black readers.

It was challenged in the Vernon Verona School District in Sherill, New York and temporarily banned in Eden Valley, Minnesota in 1977 due to the words “damn” and “whore lady” being used in the novel.

Shhhh…don’t let them see the classic movie adaptation of Gone with the Wind.

A common reason to challenges brought forth in the 1980’s labeled it a “filthy, trashy novel.” The Warren, Indiana schools dealt with a challenge to it in 1981 because the book does “psychological damage to the positive integration process and represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature.” After unsuccessfully trying to ban Lee’s novel, three black parents resigned from the township’s human relations advisory council.

A challenge in the Waukegan, Illinois School District in 1984 was over the use of the word “nigger.” Echoing challenges in Kansas City and Park Hill, Missouri junior high schools were because the novel contains profanity and racial slurs.

It was retained on an extra-credit eighth grade reading list in the Casa Grande, Arizona School District despite the protests by black parents and the NAACP who charged the book was unfit for junior high use.

In one high-profile case outside the United States, school districts in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia attempted to have the book removed from standard teaching curricula in the 1990’s, stating:

“The terminology in this novel subjects students to humiliating experiences that rob them of their self-respect and the respect of their peers. The word ‘nigger’ is used 48 times [in] the novel… We believe that the English Language Arts curriculum in Nova Scotia must enable all students to feel comfortable with ideas, feelings and experiences presented without fear of humiliation… To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly a book that no longer meets these goals and therefore must no longer be used for classroom instruction.”

In 1995 it was challenged in the Santa Cruz, California Schools over its racial themes and banned from the Southwood High School Library in Caddo Parish, Louisiana because the book’s language and content were objectionable. A challenged in the Moss Point, Mississippi School District in 1996 over a single racial epithet contained in the novel. It was next banned from the Lindale, Texas advanced placement English reading list because the book “conflicted with the values of the community.”

Moving on into the not-so-enlightened 21st century, an unsuccessful 2001 challenge by a Glynn County Georgia School Board member was because of profanity.

It was returned to the freshman reading list at Muskogee, Oklahoma High School in 2001 despite complaints from black students and parents about racial slurs in the text. Next it was challenged in the Normal, Illinois Community High School’s sophomore literature class in 2003 as “being degrading to African Americans” and at the Stanford Middle School in Durham, North Carolina in 2004 because of the word “nigger.”

Challenges at the Brentwood, Tennessee Middle School in 2006 were due to the book containing profanity and “adult themes such as sexual intercourse, rape, and incest.”  The complainants also contend that the book’s use of racial slurs promotes “racial hatred, racial division, racial separation, and promotes white supremacy.”

It was retained in the English curriculum by the Cherry Hill, New Jersey Board of Education in 2007 after a resident objected to the novel’s depiction of how blacks are treated by members of a racist white community in an Alabama town during the Depression and feared the book would upset black children reading it.

Hmmm…did this parent ever read a history book?

In another incident from Canada, it was removed from the St. Edmund Campion Secondary School classrooms in Brampton, Ontario in 2009 when a parent objected to language used in the novel, including the word “nigger.”

We have here a novel set in a time of tremendous social unrest that was The Great Depression. The effects of the Civil War were still rippling through the American South and unless you’ve never read even a basic history book, you’re well aware that the social status and public treatment of most blacks was dismal at best.

This is literature using fiction at its best and mixing it with autobiographical elements to reflect a complex time in American history. Here we are almost 100 years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird and we are once again facing a bleak and uncertain financial future; rapes still occur on a daily basis; and racial strife continues to permeate many aspects of social interaction. I think what upsets people the most about the themes in this book aren’t that they are in the book but that they did, and still do exist, outside of the pages of fiction in our supposedly modern and very real society. The truth is that these elements hit too close to home for many people and the easiest way to deal with that discomfort is to shove it back into the shadows of fear and ignorance rather than open a book, learn from history, and use that knowledge to create meaningful dialogues in order to examine and better our united futures.


Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

15 thoughts on “Banned Books Awareness: To Kill a Mockingbird

  1. Pingback: Banned Books Awareness: To Kill a Mockingbird « Musings from a Candlelit Chamber

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  3. It’s so ironic that a book that shows that we shouldn’t be afraid of other races gets banned for racial slurs. I suspect these people don’t understand literature are not welcoming to outsiders.

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  7. I don’t believe there is any reason this book should be banned. Yes, it has a very rather rude language but at the end of the day this is what happened everywhere across the country in that time. A couple of bad words shouldn’t define this book and the meaning behind it. To Kill A Mocking Bird is a sad, emotional roller coaster but how Harper Lee wrote this book, it just open your eyes and how we should appreciate the era we live in today. How racism has changed from being most of the population belittle colored to people to having children of a different color, loving who you want, being friends with whomever. This book probably has done more good then bad, therefore shouldn’t be banned just for the type of language.

  8. So true this book has a huge message that people should get instead the bad language they see. With this character Atticus Finch that is a good model of how a father should be.

  9. i dont think any book should be banned in the world. what gives people the right to say which books are bad for us and which ones are not? they all teach us a very valuable lesson, people just need to accept the truth of the world and change.

  10. Pingback: Banned Books: To Kill a Mockingbird | childrenbookshareblog

  11. I feel like being between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand I feel the novel empowers youth with an illustration of the injustices resulting from bigotry. Yet I understand and sympathize with African Americans who object to the language. I see this as a bipolar conclusion on their part. I think I’m in the middle. I’m a Hispanic who attended a predominately Latino elementary school, then a predominately African American junior high school, then a predominately Latino high school all in Texas. Then I served 24 years in the predominately white American Air Force. Then after that I taught middle and high school for 20 years in predominately white schools where the novel was required reading. I can assure you that these young students truly understood the message.

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